Asleep at the Wheel: The Cost of Not Paying Attention

Firstly, it is not O.K. for an air traffic controller or a nuclear power plant operator or a truck driver or an “Iraq Green Zone” sentry or an anesthetist to take a nap while on duty. No one disagrees with that. But, that is not really what the recent controversy over air traffic controllers is all about. The question is what to do about it. Is there some shared responsibility? Does some of the accountability fall on the leaders of the organization? During an assignment at a nuclear power plant, my client had primary responsibility for assessing “human factors” following any reportable incident. One of his very first reports involved an accident in which a supervisor was injured from a fall from scaffolding. My client investigated, interviewed all those involved and concluded that fatigue was, at least, a partial contributor. The supervisor had been working extremely long hours and the accident occurred in the wee hours of the morning at the end of an especially trying shift. After submitting his report, his “superiors” sent the report back with instructions to excise the paragraphs about fatigue. According to them, the supervisor had not been asked to work beyond the legal limits so the issue of fatigue should not even be a factor.[1]  My client was understandably disappointed and frustrated. Any effort to examine the scheduling procedures was eliminated.

So, do you just fire the employee and forget about it? Or, is it more complex than that? Do the leaders of the organization have a responsibility to examine the environment, the culture of the organization and see if there is any feature that encourages a lack of attentiveness or outright disregard for rules and instructions. It is not uncommon in power dependent organizations for people to resist authority by withholding information, subtly undermining the managers’ authority, overt obstruction, malicious obedience (“I’m going to do exactly what you told me to do, knowing full well it will cause all kinds of problems.”) or even covert sabotage. A culture that pits leadership against its team members must spend an inordinate amount of time in vigilance. A low trust environment is an inefficient one in which mistakes flourish. It is a symptom of a certain way of thinking that promotes the lack of mindfulness that is most needed.

“There should be sanctioned on-shift napping. That’s the way to handle night shift work,” said Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert at Washington State University in Spokane. There are plenty of other scientists in the U.S. and around the world who agree with him. Sleep studies show that nighttime workers who are allowed “recuperative breaks” are more alert when they return to their tasks.[2]  That is, admittedly, a very different way of thinking about the problem. It suggests that leaders have some responsibility to examine the way they think about their role as leaders and the impact they can have on the organization. The response to this idea illustrates the kind of reaction you might expect. “I think that is totally bogus,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told the AP (Who cares about science?). “There are so many professions that have to work long hours. I was greeted this morning by a young surgeon that had been working all night in an ER.”[3] (I hope that guy is not operating on me). But, what if your organization has a norm that you are rewarded for extreme behavior like working very long hours or taking unusual risks? The responsibility for creating a different kind of culture starts with its leaders. That is a topic that surely should be addressed during your company’s leadership training.

sleeping on the job at work leadership training communicationSome companies even encourage team members to take “power naps” during the work day, even taking the unusual step of providing “quiet rooms” just for that purpose. There is a growing awareness that we do not sleep as much as we should to maintain our health. The National Sleep Foundation’s recently published annual survey reports that, “on average, adults sleep 6 hours and 58 minutes per night during the workweek, about an hour less than the 8 hours recommended by sleep experts.”[4]  As a culture, we do not sleep as much as we should. It is a misguided sop to productivity and excellence that we should work ourselves to death. Americans work harder and longer than anyone on earth (Yes, even longer than the Japanese!). Yet, it is uncertain that such extreme effort is truly paying off. Lack of sleep, after all, contributes to all sorts of health problems, poor product quality, lowered quality of life, traffic accidents, etc., etc.

At a computer manufacturing plant, I was stunned by the reaction of some of our executives to an increase in productivity at our circuit board factory. The team had pulled together to meet an unusually high demand one week. They produced more circuit boards than they had ever produced before. Most managers praised them and tried to learn from the success. But, a number of senior managers criticized them for “sandbagging.” They reasoned that prior to this event, they must have been underperforming and should be penalized for it. Wow! The fact that the facility was already more productive than any of the other similar plants seemed to be irrelevant. “Can’t tolerate any insolence.” Now that’s the way to encourage loyalty, enthusiasm, high trust and all of the things that we know are essential to high performing organizations.

While it is not our place to propose specific solutions to the FAA or to any company, it is safe to say that these issues can and should be addressed honestly and frankly. The air traffic controller dust-up is a wake-up call, and the place to start is with the organization’s leaders. Such issues regularly become important topics during leadership training, especially the kind of leadership training that emphasizes building trust, developing teamwork, and learning effective communication skills. No one knows for sure that taking sanctioned naps under regulated conditions will solve the air traffic controller problem. Nor, do we know that such programs will have long lasting benefit to any company. But, there is sufficient evidence that it would be prudent to examine such possibilities with an open mind. While we are awake!

[1] This facility was operating under the supervision of a federal judge as a result of previous infractions.

[2] Associated Press, April 15, 2011.

[3] Associated Press, April 15, 2011.

[4] Reh, John F. Management. “Napping at Work is OK.”

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